The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.
Still, Republican delegates at last week’s national security committee platform meeting in Cleveland were surprised when the Trump campaign orchestrated a set of events to make sure that the GOP would not pledge to give Ukraine the weapons it has been asking for from the United States.
Inside the meeting, Diana Denman, a platform committee member from Texas who was a Ted Cruz supporter, proposed a platform amendment that would call for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia, increasing aid for Ukraine and “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military.
“Today, the post-Cold War ideal of a ‘Europe whole and free’ is being severely tested by Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine,” the amendment read. “The Ukrainian people deserve our admiration and support in their struggle.”
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Trump staffers in the room, who are not delegates but are there to oversee the process, intervened. By working with pro-Trump delegates, they were able to get the issue tabled while they devised a method to roll back the language.
On the sideline, Denman tried to persuade the Trump staffers not to change the language, but failed. “I was troubled when they put aside my amendment and then watered it down,” Denman told me. “I said, ‘What is your problem with a country that wants to remain free?’ It seems like a simple thing.”
Finally, Trump staffers wrote an amendment to Denman’s amendment that stripped out the platform’s call for “providing lethal defensive weapons” and replaced it with softer language calling for “appropriate assistance.”
That amendment was voted on and passed. When the Republican Party releases its platform Monday, the official Republican party position on arms for Ukraine will be at odds with almost all the party’s national security leaders.
“This is another example of Trump being out of step with GOP leadership and the mainstream in a way that shows he would be dangerous for America and the world,” said Rachel Hoff, another platform committee member who was in the room.
Of course, Trump is not the only politician to oppose sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. President Obama decided not to authorize it, despite recommendations to do so from his top Europe officials in the State Department and the military. The United States has provided Ukraine with non-lethal equipment and aid.
Trump's view of Russia has always been friendlier than most Republicans. He's said he would "get along very well" with Vladimir Putin and called it a "great honor" when Putin praised him. Trump has done a lot of business in Russia and has been traveling there since 1987. Last August, he said of Ukraine joining NATO, "I wouldn't care." He traveled there in September, and he told Ukrainians their war is "really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us."
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For Trump, the biggest threat to Europe is not Russia, according to people familiar with his thinking. He believes the United States should focus on helping Europe fight Islamist terrorism and open borders, not confronting Putin. He has called for a reduction of the U.S. commitment to NATO. He simply doesn’t see Russia as a dangerous threat.
For Denman, the Trump campaign’s actions betrayed the U.S. commitment to supporting struggling democracies around the world, which she considers a core Republican value.
“The Ukrainian people are trying to come out of the past and stay free. We owe to those who are fighting for freedom still to give them a helping hand,” she said.
“I’m very passionate and supportive of the Reagan foreign policy of peace through strength.”
Trump too often invokes Ronald Reagan when talking about America’s role in the world. But although Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union, he also stood up to Russian aggression in Europe and defended democratic principles abroad.
When the platform comes out, Republicans will see how far from the Reagan doctrine their party has drifted, thanks to Trump.